Current Specific Research Projects

On Strength of Will

Antoine Rebourg - FNS

It is commonly said that we exhibit strength of will when we resist a temptation to have a smoke or eat certain foods, or when we stay home to finish a paper instead of going out for drinks. However, this natural way of speaking raises two puzzles. The first is that if – as the traditional conception of action has it – whenever we intentionally act, we do what we most strongly desire to do, then successfully resisting the temptation should be what we most strongly desire to do, since it is what we end up doing. Yet, there is a very intuitive sense in which in these cases the temptation is also the strongest of our desires. The second puzzle pertains to the motivation required to resist a temptation: how is it that some have it to a greater degree than others, while still others completely lack it? Does it take further strength of will to muster up the motivation to be strong-willed?


By means of careful conceptual analysis inherent to the methods of analytic philosophy, and with the insights of recent experimental data in psychology, this project’s primary aim is to solve, inter alia, these two puzzles. I intend to do so by defending the following claims. The first is that resisting a temptation does not merely happen to us; it is something that we actively and effortfully strive to achieve. The second is that, as the verb ‘resist’ suggests, strength of will involves a tension between two contrary forces, namely the will’s and the temptation’s. In this regard, the project is expected to fuel the long-standing philosophical discussion surrounding what exactly characterizes the will, and what brings it into conflict with other motivations; relatedly, what determines the forces of our motivations is a thorny issue which will also be addressed. Finally, the third core idea that I will advocate is that exercising strength of will is a process over which we modify our motivations in order to attenuate, and thus resist, the temptation. Quite which mechanisms are at work when we manage, or fail, to do that is a question of utmost interest for both philosophers and empirical theorists studying conditions in which, purportedly, motivation is at fault – typically depression and addiction.


Grid view

List view